Jul. 23, 2004

On the Pontoon

by William Reichard

FRIDAY, 23 JULY, 2004
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Poem: "On the Pontoon," by William Reichard, from How To. © Mid-List Press. Reprinted with permission.

On the Pontoon

Summer on a borrowed pontoon,
drifting on a northern lake
with my brother, my sisters;
scent of cigarettes and beer,
stubs snuffed out
in almost-empty cans.
I feel the pattern of the iron floor
press into my back
like a template;
feel my panic rising
at the thought
that I am thirty-four
and have no job;
that the sky above us
shines just as blue
on some petit bourgeois
suburban heaven
but none of us here
could ever afford
those house payments.
The dirty old dog
my brother named Sam
barks and leaps into the lake,
the clear lake, and all around
the pontoon the water clouds.
Andy coaxes the dog on board.
In the lake, the clouds begin to calm.
There is a pattern to everything,
the way we rise, we fall;
the way I left the factories
seeking an education and left
the academy degreed
and still seeking.
The summer air soft.
Burnt tobacco
lingers around us
in fiery clouds.
When the water finally
settles, we all drift back
where we belong.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1904 that the ice cream cone was first introduced at the World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. A Syrian man was selling a crisp, waffle-like pastry in a booth right next to an ice cream vendor. When the ice cream vendor ran out of dishes, the two men got the idea to put scoops of ice cream in the waffle pastry, shaped like a cone. They called it an ice cream cornucopia.

It's the birthday of investigative reporter Nicholas Gage, born in the mountain village of Lia, Greece (1939). He was the youngest of five children. His father was a produce vendor who commuted between Greece and the United States, and who was stranded in the United States when Nazi forces occupied the country during world War II. After the war, communist guerillas tried to take control of Greece, but when they failed, they fled into Albania. As they fled, they killed villagers, burned houses, and kidnapped children to be raised as revolutionaries in the Soviet Union.

When he was eight years old, Gage's mother arranged for his escape, along with three of his sisters. But his mother was captured by the guerillas, who put her on trial, tortured her, and executed her. Gage arrived in the U.S. to find that his father had lost his produce business and now worked as a short order cook, barely making enough money to survive. Gage learned English well enough that by the time he reached the eighth grade, he won an essay contest with a piece he wrote about his escape from Greece.

He studied journalism at Columbia, and became an investigative reporter for the New York Times, spending weeks going through dusty files and government papers, writing about corrupt politicians, crooked judges, drug dealers and Mafia bosses. He later said that all this was just training for what he'd been planning to do his entire adult life.

In the fall of 1977, Nicholas Gage persuaded his editors to send him to Athens. He was determined to spend every spare moment in tracking down and questioning those who had been his mother's interrogators, jailers, torturers, and judges at her trial as well as relatives and neighbors who had witnessed her last days. He eventually quit his job to devote himself to his own personal investigation.

In 1982, Gage finally tracked down the judge who interrogated and sentenced his mother to death, and he went to interview him, posing as a civil war historian. He brought a gun along, and seriously considered avenging his mother's death, but at the last minute he couldn't bring himself to commit murder. Instead, he told the man who he was and what he knew, and then he spat in his face.

He later wrote, "My mother had done everything out of love for her own children. If I killed [her murderer], I would have to uproot that love in myself and become like him, purging myself as he did of all humanity or compassion." He returned to the United States, and in 1983 he published a book about his mother's life, Eleni, which became a bestseller and a movie.

It's the birthday of crime novelist Raymond Chandler, born in Chicago, Illinois (1888). He's known for his novels about the private detective Philip Marlow, such as The Big Sleep (1939) and The Long Goodbye (1954). He's one of the originators of hardboiled detective fiction, and he's known more for the style and atmosphere of his novels than his plots. Chandler said, "I guess maybe there are two kinds of writers; writers who write stories and writers who write writing."

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